How To Know Yourself

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In the past, I’ve been humbled to discover things about myself I didn’t want to know:  as I wrote in The Good Guy Contract, that I believed I needed other people to like me to be happy, and as I wrote in Keeping Romance Alive, that I was warm when in fact I wasn’t.  As surprising as learning these things was, perhaps even more surprising was that learning them surprised me.  Why wouldn’t I always have known these things?  Why do the things we discover about ourselves so often run counter to our expectations?  How is it our view of ourselves so often turns out to be entirely wrong?

The answers to these questions are slowly beginning to emerge from research in neuroscience.  Freud, it turns out, had it more right than he knew:  far more of the “we” that we consider “us” lives beneath our conscious purview than we ever imagined.  Not only are we composed of multiple “selves” often in conflict with one another—unconscious programs, or “zombies” as neuroscientists like to call them, that run far beneath our conscious awareness—the vast majority of our behavior comes from their interactions with each other, not with our conscious selves.  (Studies have even shown our conscious minds may not even drive what we’ve always considered them to drive, becoming aware of the intent to move, in one study, almost half a second after the command to move fires from the pre-motor cortex!)  As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:  “The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict.  Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.”

The conscious mind, however, is a great explainer.  It’s irresistibly drawn into making sense of the world and everything in it, including itself.  Unfortunately, it prefers deluded explanations that keep its view of the world intact to true ones that threaten to shatter it.  (The most dramatic example of this comes from experiments in which neurosurgeons have stimulated the motor cortices of awake patients, causing them to move their hands.  When asked why they moved their hands, patients typically give answers like, “I was waving at that nurse.”)

Given our conscious mind’s propensity to tell stories that make the world cohere even at the expense of the truth, as well as the fact that most of our behavior emerges from places in our minds unseen, it’s little wonder we’re so often wrong about why we actually do the things we do, and the type of people we actually are.  Add our ego-driven need to appear to be all things virtuous and good into the mix and we find ourselves mixing a potent recipe for significant self-delusion.

Which isn’t to say we can’t see the truths about why we do the things we do—just that the truth is quite often less obvious than we might think—that we can be utterly certain we’re right and still be completely wrong.  That our “truth meter” can be easily misled when it comes to self-knowledge is quite unsettling to realize.  But as we all have a visual blind spot of which we aren’t aware until someone points it out, we have mental blind spots of which we aren’t aware as well.  Unlike being shown how objects can be made to disappear behind our visual blind spot, however, having truths pointed out to us that hide behind our mental blind spots isn’t necessarily accompanied by a joyful sense of discovery.

Yet once we understand intellectually that we do have mental blind spots, we can leverage that understanding to become more accurate in our self-appraisals.  One way to do this, once we fully recognize what unreliable storytellers we are, is to attempt to completely ignore what we want to be true about ourselves or the reasons for our actions and, like an unbiased researcher, imagine ourselves as disinterested third parties hypothesizing about ourselves from the only data such third parties would have available to them:  our observable actions.  For, in fact, people who know us reasonably well but who aren’t bound by our biases may have, paradoxically, a clearer view of the truth about us than we do ourselves.

Which suggests an even better way to get an accurate view of ourselves may be, ironically, to ask other people.  If genuine self-knowledge is what we’re after, the best way to get it may be to summon up the courage to hear the truth and simply ask close friends and family members what we want to know.  “Am I warm?”  “Am I honest?”  “Am I fun?”  We may think we already know the answers to these questions, but sometimes we don’t.  Others, of course, may come at such an exercise with their own agendas and biases, but if you ask enough people such biases tend to cancel out.  It then becomes a question—another one whose answer we may think we know but which we actually don’t—of just how courageous we are.

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  • No wonder we refer to “ourselves”!

    Perhaps the value of the arts and therapies is to reveal to us how many selves we have in there and how conflicting they usually are.

  • The state of limited self-knowledge at every point in the paths we choose in self-growth and awareness—is the very reason we must welcome change and not be fearful of it and continue to “metacognitize” our progress for the better while steering clear of hypocrisy. Thank you for sharing what is important for becoming enlightened people.

  • What if my heart contains love and warmth towards others but my outward behavior is harsh and cold because I am awkward socially; is my true self loving and warm or harsh and cold?

    Mike: Neither. What neuroscience is beginning to suggest is that the entire concept of the “true self” has no validity. You are both.


  • I am often surprised by other peoples observations and conclusions about me, and I mean this both about complimentary as well as critical observations. However the one that was such a game changer for me was when a close friend who knew me both in business and socially told me that I was a different person in my work environment than I was in a private social setting. And the difference was that at work I was demanding, short-tempered and impatient with people who made mistakes and I wasn’t very pleasant to be around or to work for. And I thought I was just efficient and productive and fairly even-tempered.

    Well in accepting that in business I was unconsciously wired to be a certain way, and then being myself self-critical of what I had heretofore been unconscious about, I was then able to choose to act contrary to my unconscious yet hard-wired behavior and consciously choose to act in a more desirable manner.

  • Alex,

    Do you see this identification of other “selves” as just more labeling? Just one more example of our innate capability as a meaning-making machine.

    Maybe a better approach is to look beyond the labels, and to look beyond the self. To realize that that which we label as “self” is not a fixed thing. Indeed, many Buddhists might argue that it doesn’t exist in any real sense.

    And so that which we observe when we look closely are impulses, instincts, conditioned responses, and the like. To give it an overarching story of battling selves, I think, might well just add to the confusion.

    All of this leads me to a commencement address I heard yesterday, given by a man I had not heard of before (and am quite surprised about that). His 2005 address, and a new book about it is called This is Water by the late David Foster Wallace. Here is the first of two parts of the sound track for those that may be interested (the 2nd part will be off to the right, if you are interested):

    Thanks again for the insightful article.


  • And what of the people you might ask to reflect back to you how YOU come off to others? Didn’t we just have this round-robin about how they MIGHT tell you the truth, but you might not be willing to hear/accept the truth? What then?

    I believe that you will get feedback from those who know you well without overtly asking for it. Those intimates will say by their actions more so than their words if you are fun to be with, or approachable, or intimidating or wise. They will call you, invite you over, debate with you, bring their questions and issues up for discussion. Or they will feel uneasy and there will be uncomfortable silences and infrequent contact.

    Their actions speak louder than the words we might coax from them. IMO.

  • I agree with the poster above, Stephen Crisp—I don’t think I have a definable self, just a collection of responses, impulses and instincts…. I am interested in how others perceive me though, and do seek out constructive feedback.

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  • To know ourselves is rather difficult if we cannot take feedback be good or bad. Like the eyebrow which is so near but yet we cannot see it without a mirror. If we can take negative feedback courageously and improve on ourselves, we are doing our human revolution. We can and will change for the better in our attitude, character, positive & optimistic behavior, hopefulness. If you want to know ourselves without complaints then the process will be easier.

  • Unbiased self appraisal is difficult for me. And being Mrs. Trust No One, asking someone to help me assess myself would be more than I would be able to do. Why would I trust someone else to have a helpful opinion of me when they are wired the same way that I am with their own blind spots and multiple selves? Maybe you are just a much healthier being than I am.

  • Alex, do you think it’s possible to know all those “selves” that reside inside of us? I’ve spent a lot of time inside my head, journaling, and really trying to know, understand, and be in touch with my different many selves. Is it egotistical to think I do, and that I am?

    As always—thanks for your timely insight.

    Shauna: I think it’s absolutely possible for us to know our many different selves. It simply requires recognizing when we’re drawing conclusions about those selves based on what we want them to be rather than on what we actually observe. I say “simply,” but of course it’s anything but.


  • Three reflections on what you said, Shauna:
    1. Unbiased appraisal is not only difficult—it actually doesn’t exist. And it is even worse/funnier than that—we are not even aware of the biases/forces of that drive our appraisals one way or another, BUT we think we are (= the key point of this article).
    2. It is OK to trust no one. But it is also useful to check whether their words/reactions contain good hints/clues about yourself.
    3. You do not TRUST someone to have a helpful opinion of you—but knowing that their blind spots may lie elsewhere than yours, it may prove useful to get their feedback and use it to learn something about yourself.

    One more thing. I loved the elephant metaphor above, and would like to offer you one more: what we perceive of ourselves is like watching our reflection in an uneven mirror—it distorts, but we don’t know how, and so we may try to use other uneven mirrors to watch the original uneven reflection and learn somehing uselful about ourselves :-)) It is difficult for sure, but once in a blue moon it may actually help :-))

  • Very much enjoy your blog, but I have a quibble with the increasing superficiality of neuroscience and was surprised at your delight:

    “Studies have even shown our conscious minds may not even drive what we’ve always considered them to drive, becoming aware of the intent to move, in one study, almost half a second after the command to move fires from the pre-motor cortex!”

    Surely that’s not astonishing; it’s ordinary.

    Why do I put one foot in front of the other, or scratch my nose? My brain made me do it. My feet don’t and can’t move PRIOR to a brain impulse, they can’t and won’t even prepare to move prior to the brain sending a signal, no matter how much I might want to believe that I’m ordering my brain (and body) to do stuff.

    So no, it’s not amazing to “discover” that the “self” doesn’t issue instructions to the brain, as if an external general is giving continual orders—how could it possible be that way around?

    It’s nice that neuroscience can now generate an array of pretty pictures with their modern toys, and that they can postulate about which part of the brain “makes” us choose the green toothpaste or “makes” us smile at fluffy puppies, but it doesn’t amount to a bag of beans other than: we do stuff, we respond and react to stuff, consciously and unconsciously, because somewhere in our brain a signal/s have been activated.

    Brain activity is, necessarily, prior to anything we do, even if only by a nanosecond. No pretty pictures or expensive equipment is needed to figure that out.

    Unfortunately, getting carried away by the fun of brain scans can lead to disturbing and grossly wrong interpretations of what it all means, for example, researchers who postulate that the “my brain made me do it” could—or even should—be presented as a defense in criminal cases.

    Real science should always be distinguished from fun or interesting stuff that means nothing at all.

  • @Caz,

    I agree that neuroscience research is a whole lot of fun to read; however, I have to disagree with your notion of its lack of depth in terms of scientific discovery. Much of the research regarding the “we do, respond and react, etc” is being applied in so many practical ways, especially in the world of biomechanics. Because of neuro’s consistent obsession over “fun” brain scans, we’ve developed technologies to reestablish functioning mobility in otherwise paralyzed individuals. These are just baseline examples.

    In terms of tackling the most complex piece of equipment ever created, the brain, I believe we’re moving in the right direction. We must first crawl before we walk. In time, the center of the onion will reveal itself. My hope is that, by then, we’ll have realized that we knew nothing at all.

  • Alex,
    As good as any of your other posts. It is really difficult to understand our motives behind our actions. In most case we just want to win and feed our ego.


  • Asking other people is a great way to get to know yourself. Really good post.

    I have been thinking a lot about how to get to know myself better and I have found 10+ techniques how to do it, besides asking other people.

    If you maybe find them useful.